From 2007–edited only slightly. Travels from Savelugu, Northern Ghana through the eastern Volta Region.
Leaving Savelugu was unsurprisingly chaotic. A familiar, beat up yellow and blue shared taxi pulled up to the compound. The children began yelling a sharp blend of English and their native Dagbani as we struggled to hug and kiss each child, while balancing our over-heavy packs.
“Hurry, hurry!” shouted Mr. Baba, shoving the children back.
There is never “hurry” in Ghana until the moment you need extra time. And, like that, we smashed ourselves, and our packs into the taxi. The children continued to scream wildly and I waved at them through tears as we puttered across the bumpy path. The death of leaving was then past denial, and my focus became the burnt savannah.
I had arrived during the Harmattan, the thick dusty winds from the Sahara that draped the sun in reddish-gray. It coated every fissure of the hospital in a grimy paint. It muddied the water, and caused everyone to cough as though they had swallowed a spoonful of the desert. And now, the sky had cleared, and the dust had settled back to the earth. The flat trees were losing their muted green, and the drought transformed lush. It looked nothing like the country I had arrived in.
“Deseba,” said the taxi driver, turning towards us, “Deseba” he repeated.
“Naa,” Carmen and I responded.
Though it was no longer the morning, “Good Morning” was often greeted well into the afternoon.
The others in the car laughed and spoke loudly. The woman to my left was young and dressed in a blue jean jacket and a thick black headscarf. Perspiration dripped slowly down her brow and cheeks, and she wiped it casually with a drab white handkerchief. The woman to the left of her was leaning her head on the glass pane. Her eyes were closed, but every so often she would open them to say something to the taxi driver. She probably wasn’t much older than forty, but the harshness of her face suggested sixty or more. She was dressed in colorful layers of material, characteristic of the women in the North. The bottom layer was brown with turquoise fish print, above that, purple and orange squares, and above that, a patched together mesh of lime green material and a yellow material with faded beige keys.
The men in the front were still laughing, and the taxi driver turned on the radio to a scratchy station of bouncy Ghanaian music. The radio was still intact, though the rest of the taxi did not appear to be. The woman next to the window retied her headscarf. The taxi driver swerved violently to avoid hitting a stray, scrawny goat crossing the road. The woman yelped at the driver, and continued to grumble as she retied her scarf yet again.
Once in Tamale, the Northern capital, we departed in the lorry station. The people in the taxi waved goodbye to us, and continued laughing. We skirted around the maze of the station and ignored the “Salaminga! Salaminga! Where do you go?” A school-aged girl tapped my arm and pointed to the sachets of “pure water” in the bowl on her head. She had haphazard cornrows and striking hazel eyes. She pointed again to her head. But we already had a bag full of pure water sachets, and so we kept walking.
We found the correct station to catch a tro-tro to Bimbilla. Mr. Baba and Mohammed came to the station shortly afterward, though we weren’t sure they were coming. They had not said goodbye, which we found strange, but now they appeared unannounced and without any explanation.
Mr. Baba wore one of his Western suits, and he carried a briefcase. Mohammed was talking on his cell phone, while rolling up the sleeves slightly on his long, traditional light yellow tunic. The neckline had embroidered silver design, which matched the design on the bottom of his matching yellow trousers. Mohammed hung up the phone and said, “My phone is not correct,” before chatting with Mr. Baba in Dagbani.
Sulley, a nurse and close friend came to the tro-tro station not long after.
We sat for six hours and my white back burnt red. The men went to pray. A boy came to us selling faux gold watches with broken second hands, and then another with overlarge men’s dress shoes.
We bought white bread with egg for everyone. And when the bus finally came there was pushing and yelling. The women strapped their babies tightly to their backs and lifted monstrous loads of yams and luggage onto their head.
“Hurry! Hurry!” After six hours looking for our bus to Bimbilla, and suddenly the rush! One moment I stood next to Sulley, and the next I was engulfed into the swarming mass of passengers and landed in a seat somewhere in the middle. The man next to me mumbled in English, “These people, these people are not serious!” He clicked repeatedly, while juggling a large box on his lap. He shifted himself in the center fold-up seat.
Carmen and I waved out the window to Mr. Baba, Sulley, and Mohammed. Sulley was wearing his black-framed glasses that kept slipping down his nose. I tried remembering every detail of these men, the woman swerving around them with loads on their head almost half their own height. My legs were pressed hard into the back of the seat in front of me. There was an increasing amount of yams in burlap sacks being spread underneath our feet. People shouted madly at each other, combined with babies’ crying, and laughing from the folks outside the bus.
The bus thudded along the washboard dirt as the sky turned dark. We ended several hours later in Bimbilla, where we were led to a miraculously clean and inexpensive guesthouse. There was some mysterious complication dealing with our room, and we were switched into another before unpacking. Carmen and I sat in the “spot” for twenty minutes before ordering fried rice from the menu.
“No. We don’t have,” said the man, smiling as if it were a ridiculous request.
“We have fufu,” the man suggested. Carmen and I both guessed this was the only item available on the menu. My gut was still recovering from a violent reaction to a boiled yam dish (Ampesi).
“Fanta,” we both said in unison, “Fanta yellow.”
The man nodded, and turned away. He came back several minutes later, empty-handed.
“The Fanta yellow is finished,” he said.
“Okay,” Carmen said, “Fanta—whatever kind you have.”
“No fanta,” said the man.
“Coke?” I asked.
“Yes. One coke?” he asked.
“No, two,” Carmen said.
“Okay, two cokes.”
Ten minutes later we both received our dinner meal. Carmen was handed a coke, and I, a yellow Fanta. We smiled and thanked the man.
The nights were unbearably sweltering, especially now, the month before the rain. In the compound, everyone had slept outside underneath the stars in the open center. The babies wailed and the girls collected water early in the morning before the prayers at five AM. It was strange to hear only a portable radio station playing a male voice rattling on in a foreign dialect.
The next morning we walked back to the lorry station where we had departed the night before. The station was really only several larger than normal tro-tros, and a handful of folks mobbed together near them. We were told the tro-tro left at nine o’clock, so we were to buy our ticket at least an hour in advance. We did not expect anyone to leave at nine o’clock, and arrived only minutes beforehand.
Bimbilla may not look like much, but we wished we could have visited longer.
There was an actual ticket booth, with black bars. The man behind the bars was crinkled with empty silver framed glasses. He wore traditional Northern style clothing and a rainbow striped baseball cap that said, “New York.” The man looked at me from over the top of his frames, and asked, “Where to?”
Three hours later, our tro-tro arrived, apparently low on petrol. There was a commotion between the driver and the group of folks going to ride on the bus. The driver finally turned off the engine and the crowd dispersed and ran for their luggage. There were massive cardboard boxes, taped and stringed together; matching suitcase sets with multicolored patches; and awkwardly shaped burlap sacks bulging. Then of course there were yams. The men tried to overcharge us for our luggage, and finally compromised and threw them roughly onto the top of the tro-tro. People tossed yams into the men’s arms and they pushed them into the truck with several boxes.
“Hurry! Hurry!” said a woman next to me, as she rushed to the door of the vehicle.
We watched the men tie two orange tarps over the top of the luggage on the roof. There was a British boy we met only minutes before, who was also riding on this particular bus, and he rushed back toward where he had been sitting because he forgot his bulky philosophical book. I waited for him, and Carmen got into the bus. The driver started speeding away.
“Wait!” I yelped, half laughing.
“Hey! Hey!” Simone yelled, more seriously.
The driver screeched on the brakes, spreading a blanket of dirt onto Simone and me.
“You are late!” the driver said sternly as we boarded the tro-tro. The nine o’clock bus was now leaving at eleven forty-five.
We all ended up in the aisle fold-up seats, crushed between more yams, babies, and layers of material clad women. The tro-tro sputtered and stopped only moments later at a petrol station. After fueling, a handful of teenage boys conveniently appeared to push the tro-tro as we once again resumed our journey southward.
South of Bimbilla, the washboard dirt road became progressively worse. The driver dodged potholes, a bicyclist with a wooden chair strapped to his back, and lines of women transporting firewood on their heads. The speedometer was broken, but I guessed the speed was around fifteen miles an hour. And then in front of us emerged the largest obstacle—a hill. The driver switched gears; the vehicle shuddered, and began rushing along violently toward the incline.
I leaned forward instinctively as we began tilting upward. The tro-tro slowed and the women in the back began yelling things eagerly and making “oh-oooh!” exclamations. Behind me, I saw the British boy was deep into his book and not bothered by the commotion surrounding him. The approximate fifteen miles an hour slowed to ten and then barley four miles an hour, the engine clicking.
We finally reached the top of the hill and we all shouted with joy, and some of the women clapped. The British boy finally looked up; awake to the people around him cheering, and then he bent his head and went back to the book.
In front of us was no longer the harshness of the savannah, but jungle trees and the overwhelmingly greener shades of grass. The road looked even more deep dirt red, contrasting with the vibrant colors on either side of it. I watched the landscape as though never before recognizing color.
Several minutes after our victorious conquer of the hill, the tro-tro suddenly jolted to an exhausted stop. Naturally, there was an uproar of voices and questions and the driver turned around, delivering a speech with exaggerated hand gestures. The woman next to me tapped my shoulder and began standing up. We followed suit and got off the bus, nearly falling down a surprisingly sharp shoulder of the road.
Carmen and I found a shady spot near an abandoned building, and we sat on the cool concrete. We were near the border of Togo, and the French influenced baguettes and other baked goods. I bought a handful excitedly and shared them with Carmen, the British boy (Simone), and a man named Isaac who was especially interested in Germany.
A handful of children emerged from the village and crowded around us, watching our movements like a film. One brave little girl, with a shaved head and plain green dress crouched closer and reached out her hand to touch my arm. She shrieked and skipped away as Isaac barked at her. She hid behind several other children, and giggled and smiled at me.
A few men crowded around our tro-tro and inspected. There was a very flat tire on the right backside, and the engine compartment was opened in the back also.
Our very temperamental tro-tro.
“This is Africa!” Isaac announced, waving at the tro-tro.
The tire was changed speedily and soon everyone was hiking back up the steep side to the bus. Carmen and I had finished two baguettes each and stuffed our small plastic coverings together in a ball. I stuck the rubbish in my backpack’s mesh pocket, and Isaac took it out.
“What will you do with this?” he asked.
I did not have time to respond, and he threw it away from us in a heap of rubbish on the ground.
Simone was not reading his book at the time, and immediately turned into life.
“Noooo!” he yelped, rushing dramatically toward the bit of plastic and stuffing it into his trouser pockets.
Isaac looked at him strangely, and Carmen and I began laughing so hard we found it difficult to climb up to the tro-tro.
For several hours we drove on a windy road in the mist. The humidity returned and the bus suddenly reeked of wetness and mildew. When I turned to mention something to Simone, he was bent over asleep, his hands still holding the open book. The pages were yellow and wilted as they bounced on his lap.
I held my breath up another perpetual hill, and released it as I saw the Volta below us. The woman next to me tapped my shoulder again and pointed, “Volta” she said. I smiled at her and nodded, “Beautiful.”
The slide downwards was treacherous, and I watched in horror as the driver set the gear in what appeared to be neutral. He rode the brakes as we flew frenziedly around blind corners and past the blur of the Volta. Simone made a gulping sound as he was rudely awakened.
The woman next to me, who had pointed out the Volta, yelled something at the driver. She put the back of her right hand into the palm of her left, and patted them together while saying, “Aba! Aba!” This signified clear frustration.
The driver yelled something back at the choir of protest, including some from Simone. He changed the gear and the switch threw us back. Once we were safely on flat ground, the tro-tro died yet again.
This time the road was paved and the passengers lined themselves alongside the road in front of the tro-tro. Everyone seemed to have collected multiple baguettes and mangos in the last village, and the women offered them to us.
“You are invited,” they said. People always invited each other to food, even to the nurses in the hospital or the strangers on the bus.
When we finally made it to HoHo, it was late and dark. Isaac found us a taxi for a fair price, and the women on the tro-tro blessed us in Dagbani. We said goodbye to them all and we knew we were no longer in the North. We were no longer home.